Over the last few weeks, the Bush Administration’s escalating threats against Iraq have pushed corporate scandals out of the headlines. This could well be deliberate, because the crisis in corporate America has the potential to shift the basic parameters of political debate in the United States. Ever since the late 1970s, a powerful alliance of economic and religious conservatives has set the political agenda. The views shared by the Christian Coalition and the Chamber of Commerce have dominated policy debates, even during Clinton’s two terms in the White House. But if we can avert a unilateral attack on Iraq and refocus the public’s attention on the corporate scandals, liberals and progressives might finally break the right’s dominance.
Seizing this opportunity requires that people on the left overcome their hesitancy to think and talk about morality. We often confuse morality with moralism and assume that they are both wholly owned subsidiaries of right-wing televangelists and ayatollahs. But morality is the very stuff of politics; it is how insurgent groups justify their demands. Both the right’s historical successes and its current vulnerabilities have much to do with moral categories and moral narratives. To end the right’s dominance, we have to learn to mobilize our own moral language and moral narratives.
The Tales Conservatives Tell
For this past quarter-century, the right has relied on a simple narrative that was made famous by Ronald Reagan and has been repeated ever since. It is the claim that the United States was once a great nation with people who lived by a moral creed that emphasized piety, hard work, thrift, sexual restraint and self-reliance, but there came a time in the 1960s when we abandoned those values. We came instead to rely on big government to solve our problems, to imagine that abortion, homosexuality and the pursuit of sexual pleasure were OK, and to believe that God had died and that religion should play no role in our public life. According to this narrative, only a systematic effort to restore the old values–to reduce the role of government, lower taxes, restore the central role of religion and piety in public life, and renew our commitment to sexual restraint and traditional morality–would make it possible for us to recapture our greatness as a people. This narrative seamlessly welds together the moral concerns of the Christian right and the free-market concerns of economic conservatives.
This narrative is supported by a strict-father morality–the belief that people behave only when they fear serious sanctions (this point is developed by George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think). It is the childrearing principle enunciated in the maxim “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” As a political doctrine, it translates into support for capital punishment and other tough anticrime measures, opposition to welfare spending, reduced government taxation and economic regulation, and finally, a strong national defense so that any enemies can be punished appropriately. The right has learned to tie each of its campaigns to this moral vision. The battle against the inheritance tax is reframed as an assault on the “death tax” that unfairly confiscates wealth from those who have worked hard. George W. Bush refers to Al Qaeda as “the evildoers” to frame the war on terrorism as the strict fathers of his Administration meting out punishment to the guilty.
While many Americans have their doubts about both the Reaganite narrative and the underlying strict-father morality, it has settled in as the common sense of the society. Liberals and progressives have been forced into a long series of defensive battles because–up until now–we have lacked a persuasive alternative story line. That could change, because the corporate scandals have suddenly revealed that the Reaganite narrative rests on a strange and illegitimate trick that was used to unite social and economic conservatives.